DictionaryI’m guessing many of you don’t understand how a dictionary is created.  It’s true of the vast majority of people — even highly literate ones.  So here’s your chance to get educated about lexicography. That means dictionary-making.

The misconception that dictionaries are authorities on language is pandemic. John McIntyre’s piece”You Could Look It Up” appeared in today’s Baltimore Sun as a response to some poor journalism about the addition of “twerk” to the Oxford Dictionaries Online (not to the Oxford English Dictionary).  McIntyre ends with the following comments:

Language is a rich subject, and linguists and lexicographers have much to tell us about it. But journalism has instead for the past half-century, since the publication of Webster’s Third, made the dictionary a whipping boy for cultural trends that the writer dislikes. This approach has gone stale.

It may surprise many of you to learn that dictionaries are simply a collection of words (or phrases) used by speakers and writers of a language. You know, as opposed to a collection of words officially sanctioned by some expert or experts.

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on the same topic as McIntyre last December, which included the following:

This view of The Dictionary as the ultimate arbiter of our shared language is one that dictionary editors themselves are quick to disown. “Lexicographers do not sit in sleek conference rooms and make your language,” Ms. Stamper wrote on her blog. “That’s what you — the reading, writing, speaking public — do. Language is democratic, not oligarchic. That’s where the real glamour is.” [emphasis is mine]

Ben’s referring to Harmless Drudgery, a blog written by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster.

I think the best way to understand what a dictionary is and what lexicographers do is by watching this wonderful TEDTalk by Erin McKean, CEO of the online dictionary Wordnik.

Just before I pressed the publish button on this post, Gabe over at Motivated Grammar published a piece on this topic. He offers informed opinions about language.  Dictionaries reflect usage. They don’t legislate it. Educate yourself, folks!